Monday, December 3, 2012

Guatemala: Building an Interdisciplinary Case for Justice

Electronic Briefing Book No. 363. Photograph courtesy of the USAID
     The success of the combined efforts of those involved with Guatemala's truth commission following the formal end of the decades-long civil war in the 1990s provides a compelling argument for the continued work and cooperation between ethnographers and socio-cultural anthropologists and forensic anthropologists as well as human rights workers and other cultural liaisons, despite the shift within academia towards a split in the social sciences and the hard sciences that growingly mark the fields of forensics and forensic anthropology. Because of the nature of the post-war situation in Guatemala, without the cooperation between fields that occurred, it is hard for me to believe that the United Nations' truth commission concerning the human rights violations that occurred during the civil war and findings of genocide would have been as successful, if successful at all in its attempt at bringing those responsible for these crimes to justice.
     Like many Latin American Countries in the mid-20th century, Guatemala experienced a long, drawn out, and violent civil war, beginning in the 1960s and continuing until 1996, mainly between a right-wing militarized government initially backed by the United States, and rural Mayan peasant laborers. After a series of coups and various regimes marked by severe corruption, violence came to an ultimate head during the summer of 1982 when the military, under the control of dictator Ríos Montt, launched a “scorched-earth” campaign against any perceived guerilla insurgent activity, most of which was located in the country's western highlands. The result of this campaign was the systematic and brutal killing of the indigenous Mayan population, with the total number of deaths reaching over 200,000 from the beginning of the war through its end in 1996, with the majority of these deaths taking place in the summer of 1982.
Refugees being brought into the city after a military sweep in Quiché.  Photograph courtesy of Jean-Marie Simon, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny.
      Accounts of Operation Sofia is one of several government-sanctioned military initiatives found that explicitly outline the Guatemalan counter-insurgency's campaign to “implement a ‘scorched earth’ policy on Mayan communities in El Quiché” according to the National Security Archive's Kate Doyle, who has presented this documentation to judges in Madrid. According to the NSA's reports, “the records contain explicit references to the killing of unarmed men, women and children, the burning of homes, destruction of crops, slaughter of animals and indiscriminate aerial bombing of refugees trying to escape the violence” (from the National Security Archive and George Washington University).
Menchu. Photo courtesy of

      In 1994, with pressure from Rigoberta Menchu, who has since been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the indigenous people of Guatemala, a United Nations truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission or Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH), was established in Madrid, Spain, under the mandate of Oslo Accords in order to investigate human rights violations committed in Guatemala. The CEH reached the conclusion in 1999 that the Guatemalan Army was guilty of committing “'massacres, human rights violations, and other atrocities' against Mayan communities that 'illustrated a government policy of genocide'” (from the NSA). This conclusion was reached largely despite the government of Guatemala which was either curiously unable to or refused to produce the documents requested by the commission or during the investigation.
Photo courtesy of
      Instead, the findings were based on evidence provided by the incredible joint effort of cultural anthropologists, forensic anthropologists, and human rights activists in piecing together the testimony of survivors and documentary film with forensic evidence from exhumations of mass graves. Lead by Guatemalan forensic anthropologist Freddy Peccerelli, the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation – Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG), founded in the 1990's once violence had de-escalated, has exhumed over 3,000 bodies and investigated over 400 cases as part of the foundation's mission to apply “both forensic and social sciences at a national and international level … in order to provide evidence of the violations of the fundamental right to life, and so contribute to the fight against impunity and to the pacification process that started with the signing of the Peace Accords” (from the FAFG's website). In 1999, Peccerelli was awarded the human rights award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his instrumental work in forming the Foundation. While the Foundation continues to work towards identification of human remains using both forensic and cultural investigative techniques, it maintains its autonomy by remaining a not-for-profit and non-governmental entity, relying on grants, donations, and volunteer programs for students.

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